Counting on the counters

LAHAINA – Celebrating its fourth year of protecting fish along 2 miles of West Maui coastline, dozens of volunteers and officials with the Kahekili Herbivore Fishery Management Area gathered Sunday morning for food, entertainment and a seaweed-eating competition.

“This is just to have a little fun, while sneaking in some education,” said Tova Callender, who is a partner with the management area and coordinator for the West Maui Watershed and Coastal Management group.

The event hosted by West Maui Kumuwai, a community movement to protect the area ocean and aquatic life through outreach events, highlighted its progress to the crowd at Kahekili Beach Park. Officials with the group talked about how and why the group started.

Before the management area – from Kekaa Point to Honokowai Beach Park – was established in July 2009, state and federal researchers said certain fish populations were “dangerously low.”

Darla White, special projects coordinator with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources, said that population levels of the parrotfish were only 10 to 15 percent of the numbers found at other marine conservation districts, such as Honolua Bay and Ahihi Kinau.

Researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center also found that from 1994 to 2009, coral cover dropped 25 percent in the region due to red algal blooms that regularly occurred in the summer, according to an internal report by NOAA that was provided at the event.

“A lot of coral has died due to algal blooms created by the warming of oceans and sedimentation,” said Skippy Hau, an aquatic biologist with the Division of Aquatic Resources. “We’re looking to increase fish populations so they can feed on algae . . . because there was such heavy fishing in the area that they dwindled in numbers.

“We want to find that balance.”

The sea life protected by the state in the area are parrotfish, rudderfish, surgeonfish and sea urchins. Since its creation, preliminary data from NOAA already has found an upward trend in parrotfish, which more than doubled between 2009 to 2012. Also, large individual bullethead parrotfish “have become relatively common,” signifying that the fish are reaching “older and larger life stages,” the report said.

“We’ve needed to do this for a long time, but it takes a lot of data and monitoring,” Hau said. “As we’ve collected research, we’re seeing the juveniles grow and reproduce to create the next generation of fish in the area.”

Although Hau and other aquatic officials are tasked with digesting data gathered from the region, volunteers have taken it upon themselves to conduct hundreds of reef surveys to help provide the data.

Don Judy, who lives about a mile from the beach at Kaanapali Hillside, has conducted 742 reef surveys for the management area known as the Kaanapali Makai Watch.

“What we’re looking at is where the fish populations are going – up, down or sideways,” said the 75-year-old retiree, who also volunteers at the Pacific Whale Foundation. “This is my home court . . . but trying to count fish is not as simple as you think.”

Judy, who moved with his wife to the island about five years ago from Chicago, said he used to count fish using underwater paper and pen.

“After doing that for about a year, I realized I couldn’t read my writing,” he said. “No matter what it is, you cannot legibly write anything underwater.”

Judy said his alternative method was to train himself to remember each fish and document them on a Microsoft Excel worksheet immediately after.

“It became my passion that I thoroughly enjoy every day, he said. “It’s fun and recreational, but the info I give is very beneficial to DAR (Division of Aquatic Resources).”

Along with Judy, Kahana resident John Seebart conducts surveys nearly every day and conducts outreach events to educate tourists and residents about the protected area.

“For people who aren’t aware of the rules in the area, we’ll go up and talk to them and point out that these herbivores are protected,” he said.

Seebart, who was born on Maui and moved to California at age 5, came back to the island permanently about 10 years ago and quickly got involved with a number of ocean conservation groups.

“I’ve always wanted to come back and so I got involved with the fish surveys with the DAR and other groups,” said Seebart, 65, a retired firefighter with 26 years on the Mainland. “We probably have less than a dozen volunteers, . . . but we try to get out here as much as we can.”

Callender, whose group works to reduce the stress on coral reefs by land pollutants, commended the group of volunteers, noting that their findings help with the overall understanding of coral reefs and aquatic life and is shared with others in the community. The volunteers help compile the volume of information needed to assess the condition of the ocean habitat.

“Some of these volunteers are extremely dedicated. . . . It’s mind-boggling the number of surveys they’ve done.”

At the event, a handful of tourists and residents were escorted by White into the ocean for a tour of how to conduct reef surveys. Hau said high schoolers and other students have participated in many surveys, but the long-term goal is to bring the data collection to the entire community.

“A lot of the time the kids just want to get wet, but if you give them a list and tell them to look for this, this and this – it gets them involved,” he said. “We’ll never have enough manpower, so that’s why we need the community’s involvement.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at